An Insider’s Guide to Visiting Crater Lake National Park

Adventure Hiking Location Guides Lodging & Camping Shelter Skiing Tourist Spots Travel By Emily Leikam

Situated in the southern part of Oregon, Crater Lake is a stunning body of water with intense blue hues that mirror the vast skies surrounding it. Stand anywhere along Rim Drive, the road that encompasses and overlooks the lake, and you’ll understand how this is like no other place you’ve been in your life. 

The lake is surrounded by miles and miles of old-growth forests and sits in the shadows of the Cascade Mountains. The area, known as Crater Lake National Park, is steeped in rich history and is just begging to be explored. This otherworldly location offers unlimited activities for nature-loving visitors.

Here’s an insider’s guide to visiting Crater Lake National Park.

What Makes Crater Lake National Park Unique?

Even though it takes up less than 10% of the area, the park’s namesake is what makes Crater Lake National Park so unique. From its origin and name to its depth and interesting features, Crater Lake is a one-of-a-kind body of water.  

Crater Lake’s Origin

One thing that makes Crater Lake unique is how it was formed. Well over 7,000 years ago, a defining volcanic eruption forever changed the landscape of the area. Mount Mazama, which stood 12,000 feet high, completely collapsed after a major eruption. The large hole that was left behind became known as Crater Lake. 

The Klamath and Makalak tribes that inhabited this region told stories of spirits battling each other for the daughter of a prominent chief. This eventually ended with the spirit of the mountain crumbling to the ground in ash and rubble, creating the grand caldera that we’ve come to appreciate today. 

Crater Lake’s Name

The name of the lake has changed many different times throughout its life. The Klamath tribe called the lake giiwas. It became a sacred site for members of many different tribes to pray, mourn, forage, hunt, and seek a deeper understanding of life itself. When European explorers discovered the lake in 1853, it was named Deep Blue Lake, or Blue Lake for short. Soon after, the name changed to Lake Majesty. When the area became an established National Park in 1902, it was renamed Crater Lake.

Crater Lake’s Color and Depth 

Over the centuries, the gigantic depression has been filled with five trillion gallons of water from natural rain and snowmelt. The clarity and color of the water is unmatched anywhere in the world. The stunning intense blue hues are awe-inspiring. Crater Lake’s color is not the only awe-inspiring characteristic. With a depth of 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in North America and the ninth deepest lake in the world.

rock formation rising from the blue lake
The intense blue color of Crater Lake. Photo by David Dachtyl.

Crater Lake’s Features

Crater Lake isn’t just a beautiful blue body of water to gaze upon, it also contains a variety of unique features to explore. Later volcanic eruptions created many of those features. One popular site is Wizard Island, a wizard-hat-shaped island that rises over 700 feet above the lake’s surface. There’s also Phantom Ship, another jagged, rocky volcanic island that resembles a ghostly sailing vessel.

One of the most unique features is the “Old Man of the Lake,” an ancient hemlock tree stump that has been floating perfectly upright in the lake since the late 1800s. The top half is four feet above the water while the lower section is 30 feet below. Nobody really knows how this tree got there or why it’s floating upright, so there’s plenty of great stories to hear from the locals of the lore surrounding this mysterious “Old Man.”

How to Get There  

This location is surprisingly Oregon’s only registered National Park. Over half a million visitors arrive each year to explore its 183,224 acres of bountiful nature. Crater Lake National Park is located in southern Oregon and is rather isolated, so cell phone service may not be available in the region. It’s always a good idea to have a map on hand before you begin your drive.  Check out the Crater Lake map on the National Park Service website.

Park Entrances

To get to the park’s north entrance, which is only open in the summer, from Roseburg, take Highway 138 east for approximately 90 miles.

To arrive at the west entrance, drive northeast from Medford for about 75 miles on Highway 62. You’ll see signs for the entrance. 

To arrive at the park’s south entrance from Klamath falls, take U.S. 97 traveling north. Then head northwest on Highway 62 for a total of 60 miles.

wooden board next to road and forest
South entrance to Crater Lake on Oregon Route 62. Photo by daveynin.

If you are traveling to the park in the winter, you’ll want to call the headquarters ahead of time for directions and road conditions, as some entrances will be closed down for the season. The entrance fee per vehicle is $30 in the summer and $20 in the winter. 

If you don’t have a vehicle, the Crater Lake Trolley runs from the Amtrak Station in Klamath Falls to Rim Village from late June to early October. 

Where to Stay

There are plenty of terrific options when looking for a place to stay in and around Crater Lake National Park. Within the park, there are two choices that provide all the amenities needed for a spot to sleep in nature. There are also rental cabins and lodges nearby for a bit of seclusion from the crowds. And, of course, there are many surrounding campgrounds for those who prefer to sleep on the forest floor.

Here are a few suggestions:

Crater Lake Lodge

The iconic Crater Lake Lodge is a 70-room, four-story building with a magnificent wooden-and-stone exterior. The lodge offers a large restaurant with exceptional cuisine and an inviting lobby with board games and free coffee. Some rooms even come with a generous view of the lake. The lodge is only open May-October with reservations booking up rather quickly. 

The Cabins at Mazama Village

The Cabins at Mazama Village are the only other overnight abodes within the park. These cabins sit just seven miles south of the Crater Lake Rim and offer basic amenities such as free WiFi, private bathrooms, and one or two queen size beds. These rustic cabins are conveniently located right next to the park’s general store, and Annie Creek Restaurant, which serves your favorite comfort foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Mazama Campground

Mazama Campground is a gorgeous campground within an old-growth forest that offers over 200 tent and RV sites. This is the only developed campground in Crater Lake National Park. It offers restrooms, running water, picnic tables and fire rings. Plus, it’s just a short walk from Mazama village where you can find a warm shower or a delicious snack.

white car on campground in forest
Mazama Campground. Photo by Jim Bahn.

Lost Creek Campground

If you’d like to stay in the park but are looking for a more tranquil setting, then Lost Creek Campground is a great place to sleep under the stars for a night. There are 16 primitive sites that are first-come, first-served and are for tent campers only. This campground is located just three miles southeast of Crater Lake’s rim.

Rocky Point Resort

If you’re visiting Crater Lake during the high season then it’s more likely that many overnight options within the park won’t be available. Just 45 minutes from the southern entrance, sitting on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake, is Rocky Point Resort. They have everything from rustic cabins with kitchens, to RV sites with full hookups, and even lakeside camping. This is a gorgeous location for anybody looking for a place to stay near Crater Lake National Park. 

Things to Do in the Summer

Crater Lake National Park has two seasons – Summer and Winter. Both are popular, but summertime offers all the warm-weather activities and sun-filled fun.

A great place to start would be Rim Drive. The best way to see the entire park is from this scenic road, a  33-mile loop with 30 overlooks that will leave you breathless. You’ll not only have stunning lake views but also mountains, forests, unique geologic formations, and waterfalls. 

If you don’t want to miss out on the views while focusing on driving, you could take a historic trolley ride around the lake. Or, If you want a truly thrilling experience, test your cycling skills by riding a bike along this undulating landscape.

Another fun way to enjoy the lake is to take a boat tour. You’ll have a chance to get up close and personal with Wizard Island and Phantom Ship Island while learning about the geological facts and history behind how this unique caldera was formed. 

Other Crater Lake activities include swimming (though the water will be cold) and fishing for trout and salmon.

Besides the scenic drive around Crater Lake, the most popular activities in Crater Lake National Park are backpacking and hiking. Visitors can go backpacking all year round, with overnight or even multi-night trip opportunities. And there are so many scenic hiking trails to choose from with the most picturesque views!

Here’s a list of some of the best trails to hike in the park: 

Watchman Peak Trail

Elevation Gain: 415 feet
Distance: 1.6-miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate

If you’re looking for an overall picture-perfect view of the lake, then you’ll want to hike up to the Watchman Lookout. This overlook offers an amazing vantage point of Wizard Island and the expansive area around. 

Cleetwood Cove Trail

Elevation Gain: 700 feet
Distance: 2.2-miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Strenuous

This is the only trail in the park that will lead you directly to the water. Here you’ll have a chance to jump in and swim, take a boat tour, go fishing or just relax by the cool blue water.

Plaikni Falls

Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Distance: 2-miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy

At the base of Mount Scott, on the eastern rim, sits a well-maintained trail that leads directly to a flowing waterfall. This is an easy hike through an old-growth forest draped in vibrant moss and dancing wildflowers. 

waterfall on rocks and moss
Plaikni Falls are worth the hike. Photo by Chloe Leis.

Mount Scott

Elevation Gain: 1,325 feet
Distance: 5-miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Strenuous

This trail is for anyone who likes a challenging hike with outstanding views. The hike will lead you up to the highest point in Crater Lake National Park, which is almost 9,000 feet above sea level. 

Things to Do in the Winter

Crater Lake in the winter is a magical, snow-packed, landscape. The park accumulates an average of 42 feet of snowfall each year, making this area of Oregon one of the snowiest locations in the country. With many of the summer activities closed down for the season, visiting Crater Lake in the winter offers a unique and peaceful experience.

Besides hiking, backpacking, and winter camping, check out:

Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing

Two of the most popular activities during the wintertime are cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Crater Lake National Park has several marked and unmarked trails for skiing that will lead you through magical forests and provide you with unforgettable views of the lake. If you don’t have any experience with snowshoeing, there’s a ranger-led snowshoe walk that the park offers for free. The hike usually lasts about 2 hours and covers about 2-miles through the forests.

Spots are limited, so be sure to reserve your spot by contacting the park’s visitor centers. The park has two visitor centers: Steel Visitor Center located in the park headquarters and Rim Visitor Center in Rim Village.

If you really want to test your endurance, try skiing or snowshoeing all the way around Crater Lake. Each winter, many adventurers revel in this 3-day challenge. You will need a backcountry permit for any winter camping in Crater Lake National Park.

Sledding & Snow-Tubing

Another great activity that is fun for the whole family is sledding and snow-tubing. There’s no designated area for sledding, but there are numerous locations within the park for a comfortable and safe ride. One location is the open meadow south of Crater Lake Lodge. Be sure to be attentive and don’t choose any paths with steep slopes or any obstacles. It’s good to have in mind that any form of winter sports is prohibited within the caldera. 

snowy plain with lodge in the background
Crater Lake rim with Crater Lake Lodge in the winter. Photo by rpaulucci3.

Snowmobiling

If you’re looking for an activity with a bit more speed, then you could explore the 9-mile snowmobile route that’s open each winter. The route begins at the north entrance of the park and leads you all the way to Rim Drive. Visitors can rent snowmobiles directly in the area of the park. Visit the Crater Lake Institute for more information.

Things to Know Before Your Visit

It’s a good idea to always check the weather forecasts before you venture out to Crater Lake National Park. In the summer, it’s common for wildfires to spark in this region. In the winter, powerful snowstorms and avalanches can occur, causing road closures. Luckily the park keeps three webcams running 24/7 so you can get a live feed of road and weather conditions around the park to help you prepare. You can also check the Alerts and Conditions page for all park updates.

Another thing to consider is that there are no gas stations within the park, so be sure to fill the tank before your visit. There is a charging station for electric vehicles located at Annie Creek Gift Shop and another at Mazama Village. The closest gas station outside the park is about 20 miles away. 

If you’re visiting in the summer then you will notice that there’s a gorgeous array of wildflowers that adorn the park. To help preserve the meadows please don’t step off the designated trails or pick any of these flowers to allow more growth in the years to come.

If you’re visiting in the winter, stay aware of any sudden weather changes and bring cold-weather gear. A warm jacket resistant to the elements and a merino wool base layer are the basics in such extreme winter conditions in the cold months.

Enjoy the Crater Lake National Park With KÜHL

Crater Lake National Park is a site like no other in the United States. The shimmering bright blue waters instantly captivate all who visit this park each year. Even though the lake is the main attraction, the surrounding forests will lead you through trails of old-growth trees, waterfalls, and wildflowers.

Before your visit, be sure to pack properly for the weather and bring proper outdoor gear to keep warm, especially when hiking in high altitudes. Have fun and enjoy the journey! 

Featured Image by Vlad Shapochnikov.

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Guide to Crater Lake National Park Featured Image
Emily Leikam
Emily is an avid traveler and has been all around the world from Alaska and Iceland to Peru and Bali. Her home base is Nashville, TN and when not traveling you can find her hiking, practicing yoga or cooking/baking!